MANILA – The sudden brutal murder of a mother and son caught on camera late Sunday in the Philippines has shed new light on the rampant abuse of authority by the police under President Rodrigo Duterte.
The plainclothes policeman identified as Senior Master Sgt. Jonel Nuezca abruptly shot and killed Sonya Gregorio, 52, and Frank Anthony Gregorio, 25, after an argument in Tarlac, a province about 80 miles north of Manila.
The incident on Sunday was captured in a graphic video by a witness. It showed Nuezca pulling out a gun and shooting the gray-haired mother in the head and then her son as they clutched each other before giving them a second bullet each. The video quickly went viral, prompting an administrative investigation and murder charges against the police officer. He has since reported to the authorities.
The incident is the latest to spark public outrage over the thousands of police killings in the country since the election of populist Duterte in 2016. In his bloody drug war, official figures report nearly 6,000 deaths in police operations in late September.
Human rights guardians estimate 30,000 people could die – including people killed by masked guards. Human Rights Watch said the April-July drug war death toll rose more than 50 percent during the pandemic.
Filipino news media reported that the confrontation in Tarlac became heated when Nuezca arrested Frank Gregorio for using an improvised noisemaker – a small cannon made from bamboo or tin cans – normally used during New Year celebrations. His mother wrapped her arms around him so he could not be taken away.
Nuezca's daughter, a minor of unconfirmed age, was also in attendance and was seen in the video walking around before asking Sonya Gregorio to release her son.
"My father is a cop!" shouted the girl.
"I do not care!" Sonya Gregorio replied and mocked her.
"You son of a bitch," said Nuezca. "Shall I finish you now?" Then he shot both of them as witnesses screamed and the clip was cut.
Alyssa Calosing, who reportedly recorded the video, told local radio station DZMM that others saw Nuezca beat Gregorio earlier and that people there cried and told him to stop.
Calosing said that after the two shot, Nuezca picked up his daughter and “they walked away like it was nothing. . . . I felt numb as if my soul had left my body. Then when I felt something move, I began to jump and cry in anger. "
Nuezca could not be reached immediately for comment, but a local police chief in Tarlac, Noriel Ramboao, told DZMM he had admitted killing the Gregorios. "He said that when he saw the argument between his daughter and the old woman, his vision darkened and he couldn't control himself," said Ramboao.
Filipino media reported that Nuezca had previously faced two murder charges that were dismissed due to lack of evidence.
President's spokesman Harry Roque condemned the murders, which he described as "non-service-related". Nuezca had been off duty, visiting his home in Tarlac, away from his assignment in Metro Manila.
"This cop is being punished – no ifs, no buts," said Roque. "The president won't protect him."
Debold Sinas, chief of the country's national police force, said the killings were "an isolated incident" but human rights activists and critics of Duterte viewed them as part of a broader culture of impunity and violence.
A report from the International Criminal Court said last week that there was "a reasonable basis" to believe that crimes against humanity were committed during Duterte's tenure. The ICC will decide whether to conduct a full investigation of the Philippines in the first half of next year.
Nuezca's case is hardly the first in which police shootings have been videotaped.
The police murder of former soldier Winston Ragos also went viral in April. Ragos, who later became known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, was also shot dead at close range after an argument with police over the alleged breach of quarantine restrictions. An investigation later found that the police concerned had murdered Ragos and put evidence against him.
The murder of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos in 2017 also sparked outrage. Police at the time alleged he was involved in drugs and opened fire first – but the surveillance video showed police dragging his body to the place where he was later found. A year later, three officers were convicted of murder.
Despite the spate of murders, both Duterte and his drug war remain largely popular in the country. Earlier this year, it even achieved a 91 percent approval rating in a Pulse Asia poll.
Various hashtags related to the Gregorios murder, including #StopTheKillingsPH and #JusticeforSonyaGregorio, were popular in the Philippines on Monday.
A social media user, Anthony Siy, tweeted about how a video of a police murder sparked protests in the United States. "The video [from Nuezca] is even worse," he wrote. "Let's not call it an isolated incident – it is the logical conclusion of a culture of impunity and uncontrolled abuse."
Duterte has not yet commented on the case, but he has assured the police of his protection in the past.
Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno posted a message on Twitter that Duterte had allowed police to carry guns off duty.
"This is because of tolerance for crookedness and abuse," wrote Diokno. "For those who don't see the truth, I hope this video finally opens your eyes."
Facebook link to the video